CAAMFest’s Rea Tajiri Retrospective screens three of this groundbreaking filmmaker’s art

IN RETROSPECT ­— Filmmaker Rea Tajiri (pictured) is the subject of CAAMFest’s Retrospective Spotlight. Tajiri’s most recent film, “Wisdom Gone Wild” is a loving tribute to her late mother Rose Tajiri Noda. image courtesy of Rea Tajiri

The films of Rea Tajiri, including her latest documentary, “Wisdom Gone Wild” and her first avant garde film, “History and Memory: For Akiko and Takashige,” as well as her co-written indie narrative film, “Strawberry Fields,” are not the product of a typical filmmaker or documentarian. These three films are being shown in CAAMFest’s Retrospective Spotlight, co-presented by the Nichi Bei News.

Tajiri’s vision doesn’t echo the documentaries we’ve come to expect, in the style of Ken Burns, with narration explaining history while the camera lingers lovingly over photographs from whatever era he’s captured. Burns and many other documentary filmmakers have built great, inspiring careers constructing their work that way, creating one-way educational presentations.

But Tajiri produces films that require a two-way effort from audiences. She makes films that reflect the thinking of a fine artist, challenging people to absorb her imagery and sometimes struggle with her seemingly opaque juxtapositions of time and place, narration, imagery and text. That’s because she studied art. She earned a bachelor of fine arts and then a master’s degree from the California Institute of the Arts and worked in multimedia art in the New York art world.

“History and Memory” premiered at the 1991 Whitney Biennial and two other films have been included in the Whitney Biennial, one of the most prestigious museum shows in the country. It’s safe to say not many filmmakers have their work exhibited at the Whitney.

Asked if she considers herself an artist or a filmmaker first, Tajiri responds, “Yeah well, there’s art filmmakers, too right? Yes, my training isn’t film, you know, it’s conceptual art. But there’s a lot of blurred boundaries I think these days between artists and documentary makers. There’s a lot of back and forth.

“So I’m a hybrid, I think, and I always say filmmaker and visual artist. To get my job. I became a filmmaker. I was making films. It’s not like I just one day decided to do this, but you know, in my heart, I think my approach is very much like an artist, you know, just work with ideas.”

When she’s told that the first thing that jumps out from her films is a conceptual artist’s approach, she says with a smile, “Thank you so much. It’s a compliment.”

That artistic vision is most obvious in her first film in the retrospective, “History and Memory: For Akiko and Takashige,” a 1991 film that’s as much a collage of images, audio, film footage and words — much like memories in real life, the arc is fractured, fuzzy, sometimes confusing and sometimes confused. Some of the bits of history, about Tajiri’s parents and their experience with the World War II incarceration as well as their lives afterward, are drawn from interviews and scraps of home movies as well as the jarring slickness of wartime propaganda films of the attack on Pearl Harbor and the virtues of the incarceration (from the government’s point of view). The result is a work of art that lingers in the mind long after the film is done.

The second movie, the 1997 feature co-written by Japanese Canadian author Kerri Sakamoto, “Strawberry Fields,” is another work that explores the Japanese American wartime experience, albeit this time through the lens of a different war. The film centers on a rebellious young Japanese American woman, played by Suzy Nakamura (“Dr. Ken”) during the Vietnam War who gets caught up in anti-war protests, but finds herself instead exploring her family’s wartime incarceration. Learning more about her family doesn’t quell her fiery anger, unfortunately. It’s an intense psychological study, and Tajiri credits her co-writer with the compelling narrative flow and says Irene Kawai, the teenaged character played by Nakamura, isn’t based on her own life. Tajiri was born in 1958, and says she was an artist, not an activist when she was that age.

IN RETROSPECT ­— Filmmaker Rea Tajiri is the subject of CAAMFest’s Retrospective Spotlight. Tajiri’s most recent film, “Wisdom Gone Wild” is a loving tribute to her late mother Rose Tajiri Noda (pictured). image courtesy of Rea Tajiri

Tajiri’s most recent film is “Wisdom Gone Wild” from last year, a feature-length documentary about her mother’s dementia that uses audio interviews, footage of Tajiri’s mother and family photos, and the mother-and-daughter journey as Tajiri becomes a caregiver. It once again has elements of collage woven into a video format, with time-jumping from present to past, and conversations with her mother that cover wide ground, both historically and emotionally.

There are some indelible images that float in the mind like visual versions of perfect poems. One is when Tajiri takes her mother in a wheelchair to a museum exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and films her mother at an environmental piece of yellow ribbons hung up like bright willow tree branches. A group of school kids on a field trip are delighted by her, and she’s delighted by them, like playing hide-and-seek as Tajiri pushes her along.

The other unforgettable scene is the last one (her mother died in 2015), where Tajiri got Hollywood set designers to recreate an old beauty salon because her mother had been a beautician. The resulting set is gorgeous… and ghostly, with flowers everywhere that make the room look like a salon in the afterlife. Tajiri wheels her mother into the salon set and her mom began singing, as if reaching back into her youth. It’s a beautiful, resonant final shot for the film.

“Wisdom Gone Wild” is a loving tribute to Tajiri’s mother, Rose Tajiri Noda. The project had been brewing for many years, because Tajiri had a knack of putting her mother on camera (and giving her mother the camera to shoot footage) from way back, long before her mom was diagnosed with dementia in 1999. Some of her recordings were used for “History and Memory: For Akiko and Takashige.” When she filmed her mom as dementia took hold, Tajiri says, “Sometimes she would say really interesting things and yeah, anyway, just trying to document it, but I didn’t know what I was necessarily going to do with it until maybe 2012.

“My students were great because I would show like, sometimes I would just do these little exercises and say, ‘OK, this is how you do a tracking shot, with my mom. And the students would say, this is interesting, why don’t you keep shooting, keep shooting, keep making stuff with your mom. So that’s kind of how it started.”

Tajiri is an associate professor at Temple University’s School of Theater, Film and Media Arts in Philadelphia. After establishing her art bona fides in New York City, she left the Big Apple in 2008.

“I took an academic job teaching,” she says. “I was freelancing for a long time in New York, and I was turning 50, and I was just tired of it. And really, you know, I was watching different friends go through, you know, becoming teachers. And I thought, that’s just something that I want to do. I had accumulated a lot of experience and knowledge and wanted to be able to share it and have more time to deepen my practice.”

She’s already planning her next project, which will focus on her father, Vincent Tajiri, who was the founding photo editor of Playboy magazine. He had also been a photographer for the Nichi Bei Shinbun in the pre-war years.

Her father had his own body of work as a photographer, but he’s remembered for his position at Playboy. Tajiri says she wants to shine a light on a personal project he had been working on: “He had this one project about resettlement in Chicago, which is an interesting era that people are just now looking at. And so I want to do a kind of what they might call a hybrid documentary. I want to do set pieces based on his photos, kind of going to some of these locations, kind of exploring some of these spots, and then like working with historians to talk about that era. And also the Nichi Bei stuff, because we found a bunch of his articles in the archives. So trying to use that voice, you know, yeah.”

In fact, Tajiri has another family connection to the Nichi Bei. Her uncle was the journalist Larry Tajiri, who was editor of the Nichi Bei Shimbun and also editor of Japanese American Citizens League’s Pacific Citizen newspaper.

The retrospective is Tajiri’s homecoming, in a way, to San Francisco and to the Nichi Bei.

CAAMFest will screen Rea Tajiri’s “Strawberry Fields” (1997; 90 min.) Saturday, May 13 at the Roxie at 3117 16th St. in San Francisco at 12:15 p.m. To reserve free tickets, visit https://caamfest.com/2023/movies/retrospective-strawberry-fields/.

The festival will screen “Wisdom Gone Wild” (2022; 84 min.) Sunday, May 14 at The Castro Theatre at 429 Castro St. in San Francisco at 3:30 p.m. Tickets: General: $20; Senior/Student/Person with Disability $18: https://caamfest.com/2023/movies/retrospective-wisdom-gone-wild/.

The festival will also screen “History and Memory: For Akiko and Takashige” (1991; 32 min.) May 20 at the SFMOMA Phyllis Wattis Theater at 151 3rd St. in San Francisco at noon. To reserve free tickets, visit https://caamfest.com/2023/movies/retrospective-history-memory/.

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